The Meaning of Thanksgiving

by Robert Jensen, Alex Doherty

New Left Project’s Alex Doherty talks to Robert Jensen about Thanksgiving, the murder of indigenous people and the theft of their land by European colonialists.

First published: 25 November, 2010 | Category: History, International

Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and a board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. New Left Project’s Alex Doherty talked to him about Thanksgiving, the murder of indigenous people and the theft of their land by European colonialists.

You choose not to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday and you have urged other Americans to do the same. Can you explain why you oppose this celebration?

For years I had felt uncomfortable at Thanksgiving Day dinners, not just because of the gluttonous consumption but because of the disjuncture between my evolving radical political ideas and the distortion of history embedded in the holiday. As it became increasingly difficult for me to be “normal” on that day, I struggled to understand why and what to do about it.

Here’s what I eventually came to understand: Thanksgiving Day is part of the national mythology that obscures the reality of the European/American genocide against indigenous people. White America tells a lovely story about the English Pilgrims—their search for freedom took them to Massachusetts, where aided by the friendly Wampanoag Indians they survived in a new and harsh environment, leading to a harvest feast in 1621 following the Pilgrims’ first winter.

Some aspects of the conventional story are accurate, but by 1637 Massachusetts Gov. John Winthrop was proclaiming a thanksgiving for the successful massacre of hundreds of Pequot Indian men, women and children, part of the genocidal project that opened up additional land to the English invaders. That was the beginning of the conquest of the entire continent, until 95 to 99 percent of American Indianshad been exterminated and the rest were left to assimilate into white society or die off on reservations.

That is the American holocaust, and the Thanksgiving story wraps that holocaust in fantasies of innocence. Instead of celebrating a day of thanksgiving, we should be observing a day of atonement. In short, Thanksgiving Day is holocaust denial.

Defenders of Thanksgiving often argue that whatever the original meaning of the holiday for many it is now a rare chance to spend time with family and to show appreciation for what one has. What is your view?

Even in radical circles where that basic critique of the genocide is accepted, only a relatively small number of people argue that we should renounce the holiday and refuse to celebrate it. Most leftists who celebrate Thanksgiving claim that they can individually redefine the holiday in a politically progressive fashion in private, which is an illusory dodge: We don’t define holidays individually or privately—holidays are rooted in a collective, shared meaning. When the dominant culture defines a holiday in a certain fashion, one can’t magically redefine it in private. To pretend that is possible is intellectually dishonest, politically irresponsible, and morally bankrupt.

The argument about spending time with family is a rationalization. We can show appreciation for the material comforts we enjoy by coming to terms with the crimes that allowed us to have them, which can be done collectively. Families could spend time together reflecting on that history and the contemporary consequences. We could dump Thanksgiving Day for a Day of Atonement without losing that time together.

It is often argued that we cannot condemn the early American settlers by the standards of our own time. What do you make of that claim?

First, we should remember that not all people alive at that time endorsed genocide. Indigenous people fought wars, but they typically did not engage in the wholesale slaughter of anyone who got in their way. And within European society there were dissenting voices, such as Tom Paine, the most radically democratic of the “founding fathers” (and, hence, the founding father most ignored).

But that’s really not relevant to the question we face today. My critique of Thanksgiving is not aimed at condemning people in the past but dealing with history in the present. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that we decide to make no moral judgment of the Europeans who committed or endorsed genocidal policies. The question today is whether we celebrate a holiday that covers up the genocide, whether we routinely lie about that history.

My focus is not on the standards of the past but our intellectual, political, and moral standards today. The crimes of the United States are, of course, not confined to centuries past. The genocide of indigenous people and African slavery are particularly gruesome aspects of U.S. history, but the large-scale assault on other peoples and cultures to expand the wealth of elites in the United States has continued up to this day. The U.S. wars of empire—covert and overt—in Latin America, southern Africa, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central Asia have produced millions of corpses and left societies in ruins. If we can’t be honest about the past, we won’t be able to tell the truth about the present, which increases the likelihood of repeating the crimes in the future.

You have claimed that a close parallel to the conquest of America is the Nazi invasion of Eastern Europe. To many that will seem an outlandish and even an offensive comparison - can you explain why you think it is apt comparison?

I’m not comparing the events but rather the reaction to them. Here’s my argument I have made: Imagine that Germany had won World War II and that a Nazi regime endured for some decades, eventually giving way to a more liberal state with a softer version of German-supremacist ideology. Imagine that a century later, Germans celebrated a holiday based on a sanitized version of German/Jewish history that ignored that holocaust and the deep anti-Semitism of the culture. Would we not question the distortions woven into such a celebration and denounce such a holiday as grotesque?

Now, imagine that left/liberal Germans—those who were critical of the power structure that created that distorted history and who in other settings would challenge the political uses of those distortions—put aside their critique and celebrated the holiday with their fellow citizens, claiming that they could change the meaning of the holiday in private. Would we not question that claim?

Comparisons to the Nazis are routinely overused and typically hyperbolic, but this is directly analogous. When I offer this critique in left/liberal circles, some people acknowledge that the argument is valid but make it clear they will continue to celebrate Thanksgiving. Others get angry and accuse me of posturing. It’s not posturing, but rather a struggle to understand how to live in a culture that cannot tell the truth.

How significant is Thanksgiving - what are some of the negative effects of continuing to deny the American holocaust?

Thanksgiving is, by itself, not all that important. What does matter is the denial of history at the heart of Thanksgiving, which is commonplace in the United States, especially in education and media. After years of talking about this, I have come to the conclusion that the dominant culture cannot come to terms with two realities: Without the genocide of indigenous people, there would be no United States. Without African slavery, the United States would not have so quickly become the dominant industrial nation in the world. That means that the wealth concentrated in the United States is the direct result of two of the most grotesque crimes in recorded human history, perpetrated by the nation that claims to be the birthplace of modern democracy. The contradictions of this seem to be too much for the culture to absorb. My hope is that Thanksgiving could be a day set aside for facing that contradiction.

Surely leftists and radicals should give some priority to interventions where they face decent prospects of connecting with those beyond its ranks. However, it seems unlikely that a boycott of Thanksgiving would resonate with much of the American population and, moreover, it might throw up even more cultural barriers between those on the left and the rest of society. How do you respond to this line of thought?

I’m not arguing that the left should initiate a boycott of Thanksgiving aimed at the general public. I have for years wanted to hold an alternative Thanksgiving public event, but I haven’t done it precisely because I cannot figure out how to make it politically viable. So, for now, I’m only talking about the need for an honest conversation within the left and targeted outreach in our discussions with friends and family. In my experience, many people feel uncomfortable with the holiday, and we should not be afraid to talk about the sources of that discomfort. The discussion about Thanksgiving can be a route into a conversation about the importance of a left analysis more generally.

Links to past writing on the subject:
2005: http://www.alternet.org/story/28584/
2007: http://www.alternet.org/story/68170/why_we_shouldn%27t_celebrate_thanksgiving/
2009: http://www.commondreams.org/view/2009/11/15-2

Robert Jensen can be reached at rjensen@uts.cc.utexas.edu and his articles can be found online at http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~rjensen/index.html To jo.in an email list to receive articles by Jensen, go to http://www.thirdcoastactivist.org/jensenupdates-info.html

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